NSF Awards School of Computing $10M for CloudLab

November 8, 2014


University of Utah computer scientists received a three-year, $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build and support a new facility for researchers studying the explosively growing and increasingly critical field of cloud computing.

The Flux Research Group, part of the School of Computing at the University of Utah, will run this facility, called CloudLab. CloudLab aims to foster a new generation of cloud computing technologies and applications, empowering researchers to develop fundamental breakthroughs that have the potential to change the capabilities, performance, reliability and security of future clouds.

Cloud computing allows companies and everyday consumers alike to “rent” computers and data storage. Tasks that previously would have been performed by a desktop computer or a company’s server can be stored in computers in the cloud and accessed over the web. These tasks include running software applications and storing files. “The cloud” refers to large pools of linked computers, typically in data centers, which perform this offsite data processing and storage. CloudLab will build three such clusters at the University of Utah, the University of Wisconsin, and Clemson University.

Cloud computing has changed dramatically the way people and companies use computing services. The cloud enables larger companies such as Netflix and Pinterest to cope with large and changing user demands, and allows smaller, startup companies to give themselves online capacity that otherwise would be out of reach. Consumers place large amounts of their personal information in the cloud, storing files in Dropbox and photos in Apple’s iCloud.

Many of the technologies underpinning cloud computing were explored first by computer scientists. Now, these building blocks are part of the proprietary inner workings of commercial clouds, making it difficult for researchers to run scientific studies of cloud computing, share data, and create large-scale clouds for new software.

“CloudLab will help researchers develop clouds that enable new applications with direct benefit to the public in areas of national priority, such as real-time disaster response or the security of private data like medical records,” says Robert Ricci, research assistant professor of computer science at the University of Utah and principal investigator in charge of the new grant.

CloudLab builds on Utah’s long history of developing world-class infrastructure for computer science. The facility will be based on the Emulab testbed control software the Flux Research Group has developed for more than fifteen years. This software is used to run dozens of testbeds for networking and distributed systems worldwide and provides secure, low-level access to hardware resources, which will let researchers build their own clouds on top of the CloudLab platform. These clouds may be similar to today’s clouds, or they may have fundamentally different architectures that enable new types of applications.

“Today’s clouds are designed with a specific set of technologies ‘baked in,’ meaning some kinds of applications work well in the cloud, and some don’t,” Ricci adds. “CloudLab will be a facility where researchers can build their own clouds and experiment with new ideas with complete control, visibility and scientific accuracy.”

Clouds can help with disaster response and storing medical data because they provide more data capacity. This means individuals and companies can store more data, handle streaming or changing data, and keep the data secure. For example, in the event of a natural disaster like a hurricane, the flexibility of the cloud would allow access to communication services, websites and databases to help people find each other and best allocate emergency resources.

“The School of Computing has been the epicenter of cloud computing research and continues to be a leader in developing infrastructure to enable diverse applications of cloud technology,” says Ross Whitaker, professor of computer science and director of the School of Computing. “Our innovative environment is what draws outstanding researchers and students to the University of Utah and allows these collaborative efforts to succeed.”

The School of Computing team is building the U’s CloudLab cluster at the university’s downtown data center, which houses the cyberinfrastructure-based computing and storage needs of the university, including University Hospital and Huntsman Cancer Institute. This facility will emphasize green computing, with local researchers tracking energy usage of the systems they are evaluating.

Ricci says an early version of CloudLab software should be available later this year, and will be free for research and classroom use. Ricci, along with School of Computing faculty collaborators Eric Eide and Kobus Van der Merwe and university Interim Chief Information Officer Steven Corbató will receive $3.8 million of the total award, with the rest to partner institutions: the University of Wisconsin, University of Massachusetts, Clemson University, Raytheon BBN Technologies and US Ignite.

In addition, the U investigators will collaborate with Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, New Mexico to provide CloudLab software, documentation and resources for teaching and research use in the classroom.

Learn more about CloudLab: www.cloudlab.us

Learn more about the Flux Research Group: www.flux.utah.edu

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